The battle for Peter Dutton’s political career is upon us, but you’d be foolish to believe that he’s only fighting for survival.
From Queensland cop to multi-millionaire politician, Peter Dutton is a man on the up. Touted as a future leader of the Liberals, the man nicknamed ‘Mr Potato Head’ is facing a battle to retain his seat at the next election. A warrior of the hard right and a divisive character, but a sign of his increasing influence in the Liberal Party, he has their full support.
Before he entered politics in 2001, he was a police officer in the Queensland police force for nine years. It’s no surprise that Dutton’s experience in the force shaped his view of the world. In his maiden speech, he described the Civil Liberties Council as “the criminal lawyer’s media operative” obsessed with the rights of criminals with no compassion for victims; he said the courts imposed “grossly inadequate sentences” on criminals and were out of step with the community.
According to his wife, there is no grey with Dutton – it’s all black and white.
As a politician, Dutton is prone to headlines. In 2008, he boycotted Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations, later saying that the apology wouldn’t deliver outcomes to kids who were being raped and tortured in Aboriginal communities. As health minister in 2014, Dutton tried to introduce the $7 GP co-payment, which was criticised as an attack on Medicare that would’ve deterred poor people from getting medical care. In 2015, Dutton was overheard joking to Tony Abbott about the threat of rising sea levels in Pacific Island nations. In 2016, he suggested that the Fraser government had made a mistake in allowing Lebanese Muslim immigrants into the country because of the (very small) number of second and third generation Lebanese Muslims who had been charged with terrorism-related offences. Earlier this year, Dutton claimed that gunshots were fired at asylum seekers on Manus Island because some of them had led a five-year-old boy into the detention centre. The PNG police strongly refuted this claim and despite saying that CCTV footage corroborated his account, Dutton refused to release it.
Just as Turnbull did in the last election with his $1.75 million boost to the Liberals, Dutton has the means to help himself in his battle to secure his seat.
Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Dutton is a serious contender for the leadership of the Liberals. He is young (46) and ambitious. He regularly offers his opinion on matters outside his portfolio from same-sex marriage to the ABC’s alleged bias. He has amassed for himself very substantial powers in his position as Minister for Immigration and Border Protection with some claiming that his powers are ‘God’ like and he is effectively unaccountable. His tough talk on immigration, citizenship and border protection serves a useful purpose for Malcolm Turnbull – Dutton is Turnbull’s answer to the threat faced by the Coalition that is Pauline Hanson.
The progressive advocacy group, GetUp, is now targeting Dutton. In May 2017, GetUp launched the ‘Going After Dutton’ campaign. Within a week, more than $200,000 had been raised for the campaign. The purpose of the campaign is to challenge Dutton’s hold on his Queensland seat of Dickson and remove him from power. Dutton currently holds Dickson by a margin of 1.6% – that’s less than 3000 votes. In the last election, he suffered a swing of 5.1% (substantially larger than the 2.9% swing suffered by the coalition in Queensland). In 2016, GetUp had mobilised against Dutton with a strong grassroots campaign and former Queensland Attorney-General, Linda Lavarch, ran for Labor. If recent polls are to be believed, the Turnbull Government will lose Dickson, Dutton and hell will ride in after it.
But you’d be a fool to write him off.
The challenge faced by Dutton in Dickson is nothing new. Although Dutton is Dickson’s longest sitting member, the seat has been volatile in the past. Dutton won Dickson from Labor’s Cheryl Kernot in 2001. She won the seat in 1998 from the Liberals. Before that, Labor held the seat through Michael Lavarch, the now ex-husband of Linda (don’t be fooled by our egalitarian roots – political dynasties are alive and well in Australia…). In 2007, Dutton won the seat by a couple of hundred votes. In 2009, due to a redistribution of seats in Queensland, the boundaries of Dickson changed and it became notionally Labor. When this happened, Dutton announced that he wouldn’t run for Dickson and shopped around for a safer seat. He tried to get preselected in McPherson – a safe Liberal seat on the Gold Coast whose member was retiring. But he lost the preselection battle. He then asked the Queensland LNP to give him a seat where he wouldn’t have to fight for preselection. When the state executive couldn’t give Dutton such a seat, he crawled back to Dickson with his tail between his legs. Dutton hit the campaign trail hard and despite Labor’s cries of disloyalty to Dickson, he won the seat at the 2010 election with an increased majority.
This time around, Dutton has the party machine behind him. Queensland is up for another redistribution before the next election. In a submission to the Australian Electoral Commission, the Liberals want conservative voting areas in neighbouring seats moved into Dickson – the effect is to shore up Dutton’s prospects of winning his seat. And Dutton has plenty of cash to put up a fight. Since GetUp’s announcement, Dutton has apparently secured $650,000 for his campaign. He is also a man of substantial wealth with assets worth at least $10 million (and possibly up to $20 million) – in fact, he owns six investment properties. Just as Turnbull did in the last election with his $1.75 million boost to the Liberals, Dutton has the means to help himself in his battle to secure his seat in 2019.
It’s obviously too early to tell whether Dutton is truly under threat. The boundaries of the seat will be confirmed by the AEC in March 2018 and the election is still two years away. A lot can, and will, happen between now and then. And as we learnt from Trump’s victory, the polls never tell the full story. But the groundwork has been laid for a major battle between progressive and conservative forces in Queensland. It is an important battle. If Dutton wins, and Turnbull loses the election, all eyes will be on Dutton to take over the reigns of leadership. If Dutton loses, progressives will celebrate bringing about his political death but the party might be short-lived – you can bet that with youth and ambition on his side, Dutton is the kind of politician who’ll find a way to come back.